BRIAN: Concert Overture: "For Valour" (1902-06).* Comedy Overture: "Dr. Merryheart" (1911-12). Symphony No. 11 (1954). Symphony No. 15 (1960).*
RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra/Tony Rowe*, Adrian Leaper.
Naxos 8.572014 TT: 77:10.

Giant. British composer Havergal Brian left a significant body of work, including a cycle of 32 symphonies, which hardly anyone but specialists knows. During his very long life (nearly 97 years), he gained the support of such figures as Elgar, Delius, Bantock, Vaughan Williams, Ernest Newman, and Robert Simpson, the last of whom helped illuminate him briefly on the general listener's radar screen. Certainly, Simpson turned me on to Brian during the Sixties and Seventies through articles, liner notes, and getting up actual performances on BBC Radio. Yet, if we consider the quality of Brian's music, we can't say he's yet gotten his due. Here, after all, is Elgar's heir, among other things. Bad luck plagued him most of his life. Born in grinding poverty, his formal schooling stopped at the age of 12. Yet he stubbornly held to the idea of becoming a composer. He could not afford a formal course of study, so he to a great extent taught himself and earned a catch-as-can living in musical journalism and various musical secretarial tasks. He had married (twice; the first ended in divorce in 1913) and needed to provide for his family. His work as a reviewer gave him access to free tickets to the wealth of concerts in London. His positions in musical journalism kept him abreast of the latest developments. He early on beat the drum for Mahler, Handel's operas, Bruckner, and Schoenberg. Promised performances and publications of major works often went unrealized, due to one thing and another (the usual lost scores and the ascent of the Nazis to power, for example). By the end of World War II, he was almost totally forgotten. At the time of his Sixties revival, he and his wife were living in a council flat. Through all of this, he single-mindedly continued to compose, producing most of his symphonies after World War II as well as other major scores. His work rarely shows up in recording, often in amateur performances, although Marco Polo and now Naxos seem to have taken a flyer on him -- a long time coming.

Brian's work divides roughly into early and late. The early work is big and Romantic; the late terse and thoroughly modern. This CD features scores from both periods.

If Brian has a fault, it's his tendency to stuff his work full of too many wonderful things. I can't think of a truly light piece. For Valour suffers from this. It's an Elgarian overture -- similar to something like Froissart or In the South. Ideas burst from it in confusing profusion. There are, for example, not one, not two, but three multi-thematic subject groups, and they're freely mixed in the development. This takes, at least, great skill, but a listener may have to listen to it many, many times before it begins to make sense. Fortunately, Naxoshas divided the overture into subtracks, and Brian maven Malcolm McDonald has provided terrific liner notes geared to those tracks. Most of the overture is either contemplative or grand, but it also contains some "barbaric" passages that I find quite gripping. Dr. Merryheart, on the other hand, takes off from Richard Strauss, particularly Don Quixote. Despite Brian's designation of "overture," it, too, is a set of "fantastic" variations. The theme, however, hasn't as strong a profile as Strauss's. Indeed, Brian seems to have made it out of bits, and the bits don't particularly cohere. Furthermore, he varies the individual bits (often, just rising and falling scales) rather than the theme. Nevertheless, it's wonderful music, overflowing -- again -- with invention. Nobody has yet found a literary source for Dr. Merryheart, other than Brian's own program note. Some take it as the composer's humorous self-portrait -- head full of "crotchets," heroic in dreams, modest awake.

In three movements played without a break, the Symphony No.11 opens, unconventionally, with a contrapuntal, contemplative adagio, Brucknerian in mood, without borrowing Bruckner's idiom. Brian refers to its two main ideas as "motto-themes" -- that is, they engender other themes. The mottoes slightly vary one another -- an upward octave leap, followed by variants of a short descent. These mottoes run throughout the symphony. In the adagio, they appear in truncated form, without their opening jump. The second movement, an allegro which takes up more than half of the symphony, begins with an idea clearly derived from the first measures of Mahler's Symphony No.4. It's an odd allegro, in that it's largely quick in brief spans; contemplation is "always breaking out." As in a lot of Brian, it combines several different movements within one overarching argument. Essentially, an allegretto transforms itself into a slow movement. The first idea consists of the horns blowing a bumptious theme that consists of the mottos in their full form conjoined. The spirit of Mahler flows through the movement in more ways than one, particularly in how one idea segues into the next and in the chamber-like symphonic orchestration. Brian uses a large orchestra, but seldom all at once. The extra instruments provide a greater variety and color in less complex textures. Especially noteworthy is Brian's use of percussion, absolutely individual, almost a composing fingerprint. The second movement flows into the short coda, a swaggering march which sandwiches a pastoral dance, and the symphony ends with a strong dash of bright brass.

Structurally, the Symphony No. 15 comes across as an odd duck, even for a one-movement symphony. Its main idea -- MacDonald calls it "Handelian" -- strikes me as a first cousin to "Rule Britannia!" That idea acts like pillars throughout the work, between which one gets discursive episodes. The sections of the symphony can't really be called movements, since their boundaries are fluid. I doubt whether two people would agree on where one ends and the next begins. It's fantasia as much as symphony. Nevertheless, one can distinguish three main spans: a march, a lyrical bit (the bulk of the work), and a final triple-time dance based on the march. This last is hardly the light divertissement one might expect from a Classical work. It sounds like giants dancing, even waltzing. There's a deep "boom" to it. Throughout the work, Brian's imaginative, yet non-showoff-y use of percussion counts as one of the many fascinating details. As discursive as Brian can be, this symphony, because of the centrality of the opening idea, seems one of his most focused.

Tony Rowe in For Valour and in Symphony No. 15 and Adrian Leaper in the rest do very well indeed containing Brian's tendency to sprawl in these scores. The RTÉ band significantly improves over the amateurs and pickup groups that seemed to appear on most of the early Brian recordings. The sound is firmly within the current standard, without exceeding it. Naxos is relatively cheap. Why not take a flutter?

S.G.S. (June 2011)